After a long offseason filled with numerous surprises, the New England Patriots are finally approaching their return to regular season football.
Most assume that the Patriots’ battle with the Miami Dolphins will be very evenly matched. There is no consensus winner and the two teams seem to have similar roster talent. That said, ahead of the highly anticipated Week 1 matchup, I wanted to take a deeper look at how these two teams stack up position group vs. position group in order to discover who has an advantage going in Sunday’s game.
Positional matchups for Patriots vs. Dolphins
No significant advantage either way
While it would be easy to buy high on the Mac Jones hype and give him a huge advantage over Tua Tagovailoa, the reality is that Jones has never played an NFL regular-season game. He didn’t even start taking significant reps with the starters until late August.
Ultimately, I believe Jones has higher upside and will at some point surpass Tagovailoa, maybe even before they meet again later in the season, but, right now Tagovailoa’s NFL experience gives him a slight edge over the rookie Jones.
It’s not just Tagovailoa’s in-game experience either. Tagovailoa has a full season of NFL coaching that Jones doesn’t have, along with an extra year of studying the nuances of NFL defenses.
Having said that, I think there’s a very real chance Jones has a better performance on Sunday. However, that’s got more to do with Bill Belichick and the Patriots’ revamped defense stifling Tagovailoa than it does Jones lighting up the Miami defense. In fact, this matchup has all the makings of a defensive showdown. Bottom line: There’s no significant advantage here for either side.
New England has the advantage at running back and it’s not particularly close. The Patriots running back group is one of the deepest in the NFL.
Damien Harris is easily the most talented runner on either team. J.J. Taylor runs with some serious juice. Rookie Rhamondre Stevenson had an incredible preseason. James White provides a steadying veteran presence and consistency in the passing game. The depth and versatility of this group is unmatched. The Patriots want to run the ball heavily this season, and their roster reflects that.
Meanwhile, Miami possesses an average running back room. Myles Gaskin is a jack of all trades but a master of none. Malcolm Brown is a capable journeyman player and Salvon Ahmed is a decent change of pace running back.
Even with Will Fuller suspended for the first game of the season, Miami easily earns the advantage here. DeVante Parker has shown flashes of outright dominance at times. Any given Sunday he can have a huge game. In 2019, Parker had 8 catches and 137 receiving yards in a Week 17 game against the Patriots. Highly touted sixth overall pick Jaylen Waddle also projects to be an explosive playmaker. Preston Williams and Albert Wilson are also nice supplemental pieces.
The Patriots wideouts are a solid but unspectacular group. Their overall numbers won’t be great on paper, but that’s because the New England offensive system won’t rely heavily on wide receiver production. The Patriots’ receivers are good fits for what they’ll be asked to do. This is a group that I think will be greater than the sum of its parts. That said, it’s still a middling group compared to the rest of the league.
No surprises here, as the Patriots boast one of the best tight ends room in the league. Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry figure to be prominently featured in this Sunday’s contest. The Patriots will likely want to avoid testing Miami’s top cornerback tandem too often. I expect a lot of 12 personnel from New England.
Meanwhile, Miami’s Mike Gesicki functions best as a pass-catcher. He is essentially an oversized slot receiver, as he struggles when asked to run block. Adam Shaheen, the Dolphins number two tight end, is currently on the Reserve/COVID-19 list.
New England had a strong advantage here even before Miami’s starting left tackle Austin Jackson landed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list. Now, with Jackson out, the gap between the two groups has grown even larger.
The Patriots have what projects to be a top-five unit in the trenches, while Miami projects to have one of the worst groups in the league. There isn’t too much to analyze here, as Miami simply lacks proven talent along the offensive line.
Interior defensive line
The Dolphin’s loss was the Patriot’s gain when Davon Godchaux left Miami and signed with the Patriots in free agency. That said it wasn’t a big enough loss to give New England the advantage here. It’s worth noting former Patriot Adam Butler also opted to switch sides this offseason, inking a two-year deal with Miami.
The Dolphins trio of Christian Wilkins, Raekwon Davis, and Emmanuel Ogbah (who also takes snaps at the edge position) is a formidable starting group. Butler and Zach Sieler offer quality depth.
As for New England, they revamped their interior defensive line this off-season. The Patriots drafted Christian Barmore and signed the aforementioned Godchaux and Henry Anderson. The group will be much improved from last year, but the Dolphins still narrowly edge out the Patriots on the interior.
Because the Patriots and Dolphins rosters feature numerous edge/linebacker hybrid players, I decided to combine both position groups into one.
New England has a clear advantage here, as the Patriots edge/linebacker group offers everything from high-end talent to proven positional versatility.
Between newcomer Matthew Judon, the return of Dont’a Hightower, a reunion with old friend Kyle Van Noy, and emerging youngsters Josh Uche and Chase Winovich, this group is insanely deep. After being an obvious weakness in 2020, it’s become the strength of the defense in 2021.
Conversely, the opposite is true for Miami. The Dolphins group of edge rushers struggle to create pressure on their own, as evidenced by the fact that they had to heavily rely on the blitz in 2020 to manufacture pressure. Without using their linebackers as additional rushers, this is a group that will struggle to get to the quarterback consistently. Granted, rookie Jaelan Phillips should help some, but not enough to give Miami the edge on New England at the edge/linebacker positions.
Xavien Howard and Byron Jones form one of the top cornerback tandems in the NFL. Still though, this would be a much closer call if Stephon Gilmore were healthy. Without Gilmore, this is a decisive advantage for Miami.
Both Howard and Jones are capable of locking up an opposing team’s number one receiver. Nik Needham and Justin Coleman will likely split the snaps at slot corner.
Meanwhile, the Patriots’ duo of J.C. Jackson and slot man Jonathan Jones is a formidable pair of corners, but the second outside spot opposite Jackson remains a question mark. It’s not ideal that the Patriots will have to rely on Jalen Mills as their second boundary corner to start the season. Miami simply has better high-end talent and more depth at the corner position.
New England, once again, has a very well-rounded group of safeties. Devin McCourty is a long-time defensive leader and still an extremely productive player. Kyle Dugger is an ascending star. Adrian Phillips is an underrated Swiss Army knife. The trio is immensely talented and gives the Patriots a ton of versatility on the backend.
Miami has a pair of former Patriots atop their depth chart at safety, with Jason McCourty and Eric Rowe expected to get the starting nod. Rookie Jevon Holland is an unknown but there’s potential there.
This is closer than you’d think, considering the Patriots are rostering the exciting but unproven Quinn Nordin at kicker. Jason Sanders, Miami’s kicker, is the better player between the two.
That said, the rest of the Patriots’ special teams unit, anchored by standouts Matthew Slater and Justin Bethel, once again projects to be amongst the best in the league. And of course, New England’s Jake Bailey is arguably the top punter in the game. Both teams roster a strong group of special framers, but the advantage goes to the Patriots.
Brian Flores deserves a ton of credit for turning things around in Miami so quickly. Flores is a great defensive mind and he’s a great leader. However, Bill Belichick is the greatest coach of all time. By default, that gives New England the coaching advantage. But again, it should be emphasized that Flores will have his team ready to play too.
This article was edited by Luke Ervin.